Saturday, January 26, 2008

Gambling on the Clintons

Bill Clinton is back, scarlet-faced and shaking.

He’s everywhere on the campaign trail, browbeating reporters, unloading wild accusations of voter fraud and smearing his wife’s “fairy tale” opponent, that uppity Barack Obama.

Since leaving the Oval Office, Clinton’s gone the Jimmy Carter redemption route, embarking on admirable ventures to help victims of Hurricane Katrina, stop global warming and assist those suffering with AIDS.

Now he seems ready to chuck that all just to play Boss Tweed.

Clinton clearly is on a mission to preserve his legacy via Hillary and take back their rightful place running the country.

With all due respect, Mr. President, there are sick children in Africa who need you a hell of a lot more than we do.

Clinton’s conduct is unbecoming for a former commander-in-chief. He’s the junkyard dog of the most despicable presidential campaign this cycle that’s floated falsehoods like Obama is a Muslim drug dealer.

Not one, but two racial stereotypes. The Clintonites are setting us back 50 years and fracturing the country.

More importantly for them, they’re dividing the Democratic Party.

On paper, it looked like there was no way even the Dems could screw up losing the White House this year.

The economy’s tanking, the Iraq war remains unpopular and our Republican president largely is considered a colossal failure.

GOP presidential hopefuls are hacking each other apart. No one’s conservative, pro-life, anti-immigrant, pro-tax cut or religious enough, leaving them to squabble like, well, Democrats and split up the primaries.

Meanwhile, the Democratic field was an embarrassment of riches with charismatic, cerebral candidates and boatloads of cash to boot.

As always, we’ve underestimated them, thanks to the Clintons’ scorched earth tactics.

If they can’t have the presidency, no Democrat can.

Obama recently came under fire for telling the truth (just as John McCain did when he told Michiganders to say auf Wiedersehen to many auto jobs).

“I think it’s fair to say that the Republicans were the party of ideas for a pretty long chunk of time there over the last 10 to 15 years in the sense that they were challenging conventional wisdom,” Obama told a Nevada newspaper.

Absolutely. It was former Speaker Newt Gingrich who led the charge on the Contract with America. Republicans pushed to end welfare as we know it, privatize Social Security and christen the Department of Homeland Security.

Obama didn’t say these were brilliant ideas or remotely beneficial for this country. But there was vision.

What was Bill Clinton’s agenda? He never bothered crafting a New Deal or Great Society. His centrist Third Way was all about getting elected. There was no blueprint for governing, which is why his grandest initiative – Hillary’s health care plan – fell flat.

And that’s why, even in my Communist college days, I could never pull the lever for him.

In the end, the Clinton presidency was defined by the GOP – their Contract, their government shutdown, their impeachment of him. Even if you see him as the wronged hero, that still doesn’t make him a leader of great fortitude.

Obama further committed heresy by adding:

“I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it.

“I think they felt like with all the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s and government had grown and grown but there wasn't much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating. … He just tapped into what people were already feeling, which was: We want clarity, we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing.”

Poor Sen. Obama. While these are undisputable historical facts, he found out there’s no room for that sort of thing in elections.

Not when you’re gambling against the Clinton machine, which painted him as a born-again reactionary. (He promptly lost the slot machine state).

But Reagan was the maestro of messaging: Government is the problem, not the solution. That’s the paradigm in which we still live. It defined Michigan’s budget battle last year – and it’s why some courageous lawmakers might lose their jobs.

Democrats need to learn from the past – the successes of Reagan and FDR – and grapple with new realities of terrorism, globalization and failing schools. They can’t afford to play the race or gender card.

They need, at long last, to develop a vision. They won in 2006 without one due to revulsion over the war and Republicans being dragged from the Capitol in handcuffs. But luck never lasts long.

Bill Clinton lectures that voting for Obama over Hillary’s experience is a “roll of the dice.”

Four or eight more years of nonstop politicking and reactive policy? If I were a Democrat, I’d bet on Obama.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Mitt won’t work miracles for Michigan

Bad news, kiddies.

I know Uncle Mitt - who you haven’t seen since Cher and bell bottoms were mod - missed you very much and came bearing gifts last week.

He was so sorry he’d abandoned the auto industry his dad championed to make millions in international markets (though you know he’s too proud to admit it).

And he felt real bad about missing your birthday, tiger.

Brandishing that can-do smile and the sincerity of a 1970s game show host, our man Mitt promised the return of fab ‘50s-style manufacturing jobs, $20 billion in federal aid and a pony for everybody in the Mitten State.

Groovy. Only it ain’t gonna happen.

Meanwhile, mean old John McCain - who spent a chunk of the Me Decade tortured by the North Vietnamese (bummer) - told us some of those jobs aren’t coming back. Instead, we need to harness Michigan’s world-class college system and invest in emerging technologies like green energy.

Reality, man. It’s a bummer, too.

So the majority of voters in Tuesday’s GOP primary decided to deny the realities of the new economy. The Mittster was their man.

As a Harvard MBA, Romney, of course, knows McCain and virtually every economist in Michigan is correct. But selling “optimism” and the now-ubiquitous commodity of “change” makes for better sound bites.

McCain employed the dicey strategy of holding town hall meetings across the state in which he openly invites people to spar with him, unlike any other presidential hopeful.

Oh, how they did Sunday in the right-wing hotbed of Howell – on stripping citizenship from American-born kids of illegal immigrants, President Bush’s tax cuts, campaign finance reform and more.

But the thousand-strong crowd respected him and erupted in a frenzy. Honesty can inspire.

If his advisors had let McCain be McCain and do more of those events in Michigan over the last year – instead of endless fundraisers, party establishment schmoozing and confabs with anti-tax zealots working to unravel his candidacy – I think the primary would have gone quite differently.

Contrast McCain with Romney, who ginned up emotion Saturday at a kitchen table chat with an unemployed Marshall worker. The catch? It was a set-up with a staffer’s mom, something Marvelous Mitt forgot to tell the media (oops!)

Evidently, integrity is an overvalued asset in this CEO’s campaign.

Romney also got a pass on his Michigan roots (though he tastelessly reminded us on the stump his parents are buried here). In reality, the heavily hair-sprayed tycoon is the poster child for the brain drain we’re all supposed to revile.

As the former baron of Bain Capital, Romney perhaps instinctively knew staying in his home state was a bad risk as the auto industry nosedived, so he headed off, curiously enough, to the place all good Republicans jeer as Taxachusetts.

Now running as an outsider (the most hackneyed theme in politics), Romney says he’ll shake up Washington and stand up for Michigan. This, of course, underscores the fact that Bush doesn’t give a damn about the Big Three – he refused to meet with them for years.

But the most pro-Bush voters and the fiscal delusionists ganged up to vote Romney, according to exit polls. Go figure.

They’re about as consistent as their candidate, who’s amusingly stalked by a dude dressed as a dolphin named “Flip Romney” to highlight his pliable positions on abortion, immigration, stem-cell research, gay marriage and government health care.

Malleable Mitt has a new campaign theme for every state, as well as a shiny, new multi-million-dollar attack ad buy. In Michigan, he outspent McCain at least 3 to 1.

Romney is who you want him to be. Someone get the schizophrenic candidate a psychiatrist, stat.

But there’s one thing Romney is remarkably consistent on: military service. It wasn’t for him (God bless missionary and student deferments).

A hawk on the Vietnam War (and now Iraq), he was no principled conscientious objector. To fervently support a war without feeling any call to sacrifice is the worst form of hypocrisy and cowardice.

Service isn’t for any of his five strapping sons, either. But fighting terrorists isn’t the only way to fortify America.

As Mitt merrily explained last summer, “One of the ways my sons are showing support for our nation is helping me get elected because they think I'd be a great president.”

Mitt comes first. Only then can we get to that pesky maxim of “duty, honor, country” Gen. Douglas MacArthur noted builds courage, character and hope in a man.

So, boys and girls, what exactly do you think President Romney’s commitment will be to the state he skeddadled from five decades ago?

My advice: Don’t cash that check yet, Michigan. Somehow, I doubt your native son’s good for it.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

‘I Am Woman, See Me Cry’

What a sad night to have ovaries in America.

On Tuesday, tears evidently were enough to catapult Hillary Clinton to victory in New Hampshire.

The electoral Athena, reported to have callously coached her own daughter never to brandish emotion, turned on the waterworks Monday when a voter innocuously asked, “How do you do it?”

(And cringingly added, “Who does your hair?”)

“It’s not easy,” the Warrior Princess intoned gravely. And then her corneas glinted with something we humans know as teardrops.

Pundits did a 180 from their heavy breathing over Barack Obama’s win in Iowa into to breathless bewilderment that Hillary hath emotions, after all.

I imagine the tears were hard for Clinton to muster. It had to be a masochistic moment for her, although given her well-known marital history, she’s used to that.

But nothing else had worked, so why not.

Wait, you say. Isn’t it possible that her whimpering was real?

Of course, dear.

It couldn’t possibly be a MacBethian strategy in concert with Bill Clinton’s assault on the media’s “fairytale” coverage of Obama and her campaign’s wide-eyed insistence that if Hillary kept her loss down to double-digits, it would be a victory.

This couldn’t be the culmination of her “Likeability Tour” through Iowa a few weeks back, the saddest campaign concoction in recent memory evoking images of a hapless spinster selling herself and her 28 cats on

Sorry folks, the candidate brought those sexist stereotypes on herself.

They’re on par with Clinton’s rendition of, “I Am Woman, See Me Cry.” Not exactly a gutsy feminist anthem.

For the record, I am an unabashed feminist who thinks the word has gotten a bad rap and should be embraced by all men and women - conservative or liberal - who can agree that the fairer sex is not chattel.

I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to first- and second-wave women’s libbers who chained themselves to buildings and sat in jail so I could have the right to vote in this election and a column in which to grouse about it.

My liberal friends tell me I am exactly who should be voting for Hillary. St. Gloria Steinem herself has decreed it is our moral duty to install a woman in the White House.

Amen, sister. But as a student of history and a humanist, I fervently believe in electing the right candidate for the times.

And I think the Clintonian era of psychodrama and scandal has passed. Consider the fact that the entire premise for Hillary ’08 is a throwback to 1950s seedy pulp fiction.

She’s being slickly sold as the candidate of experience, having already done an eight-year stint at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Yes, but it was on the tea and crumpets circuit. Her grandiose health care initiative was one of the biggest domestic failures in modern history and Clinton was never trusted with anything that consequential again.

That is, until Bill couldn’t keep from pawing a bawdy intern and Hillary became - you guessed it - emotional. So distraught, in fact, that the only thing that could console her was running for a Senate seat up in New York.

When married to a serial philanderer, it’s good to find a hobby.

Clinton stood by her man – and on his broad shoulders to launch her own political career.

That makes her presidential campaign remarkably anti-feminist in my book. (Though I suppose she can take comfort that no one can top reliable GOP nut-job Pat Robertson, who called feminism a “socialist, anti-family, political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.”)

Naturally, my heresy has just invited hate mail that I would never dare castigate a man, a black man or Bessie the cow like this.

Yeah, check back with the overwhelmingly male legislators I inveigh against week after week.

Look, I’m not delusional enough to contend we’ve busted the glass ceiling and live in magical Equalityland now. I’ve been paid insultingly less than male reporters with less experience. My mug shot often garners more speculation than my prose.

No doubt, Hillary Clinton faces unique challenges as the first top-tier female presidential contender.

But her next move is utterly predictable: to obliterate Obama with a barrage of unseemly and unfounded attacks, probably employing others to do it (like, say, a perennially sorry spouse).

What we need now is a person of honor in the Oval Office, who will pledge an end to that kind of hyper-partisan, cancerous politics.

Hillary’s not our girl, to steal her own campaign line. She’s masterfully lined the old boys’ club behind her, playing the politics of personal destruction like it’s a parlor game.

And all along the way, she still plays the victim.

For that, you can cry me a river, honey.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

The race I’d like to see

One of the first things transplants learn about Iowa City - which trumpets itself as the mecca of the Midwest - is that it’s not like the rest of the Hawkeye State.

As a University of Iowa freshman in the ‘90s, I was confronted by hills banned in most corners of corn-fed territory, a vibrant theater scene and a disturbing nickname.

Yes, in some unenlightened hamlets, I.C. is known as “N-town” for its rather unremarkable diversity. But the Big Ten town is an aberration from 95 percent white Iowa, which is enough to make some folks squeamish about sending their kids there.

So am I surprised that Iowans fell in love with Barack Obama on Thursday?
In a word, no.

The brilliant senator and former constitutional law professor has a commanding, yet thoughtful timbre that dances on the edge of evangelical zeal but never succumbs. For the most jaded among us, it’s jarring to see Obama and a crowd dissolve into a deafening mutual admiration society, as I witnessed in Chicago this summer.

A wunderkind whose presidential hopes were dismissed for months by pundits as a pipe dream, Obama flourished in the intimacy Iowa offers by hitting barbecues and fire halls, inspiring folks and hustling for every vote.

There’s a clear parallel with former Gov. Mike Huckabee, the big winner on the Republican side, who followed a similar strategy. When both men speak, they shed the Washington glad-handling dialect and appear to be (gasp) genuine people.

In a cynical age in which everyone professes to hate politics, Obama connects with people one-to-one, tempting them to believe in “hope” – or at least something greater than themselves.

That’s led many a media-type to crown him as the “next Kennedy,” a tired rite of passage since 1968. Of course, every progressive claims to be RFK’s heir (John Edwards currently is the most boisterous pretender).

Now I have a long, unbridled love affair with the speeches of Robert F. Kennedy. Politicians could learn a lot from his lifelong quest against injustice and tortured immersion into the Brooklyn slums and California migrant camps.

But Kennedy comparisons are usually overly simplistic, aggrandizing or just plain wrong. Obama may be a spellbinding speaker, but his measured persona is quite different than that of a populist streetfighter.

Though a Democrat through and through, Obama ditched the partisan rubric while devising plans for health care, the economy and Iraq based on meticulous research, reaching out to the other side of the ideological divide.

That’s one key to Obama’s stunning nine-point upset of Hillary Clinton in Iowa. Turnout was huge – more than double than the GOP’s – and 59 percent were new caucus-goers. The Illinois senator nabbed them, as well as independents and crossover Republicans.

For that reason, Obama could turn out to be a far more formidable general election candidate than anyone thought – if he makes it that far.

But there’s always the issue of race. Remember the 2006 Michigan Civil Rights Initiative that effectively killed affirmative action? Polling was neck and neck, but no one was shocked when it passed 60 percent. Why? Because people lie about race.

Still, the majority of caucus-goers made a public statement (literally – there’s no such thing as a secret ballot) that they were going with the man with a Kenyan father and a Kansan mother.

That, in and of itself, is remarkable. Iowa, to my knowledge, has never elected an African-American (or a woman) to either house of Congress or the governor’s mansion.

Here’s what did surprise me: People didn’t surrender on the second ballot to the safe choice of Edwards, the down-home, union-loving (white) guy thought to be the runner-up for many. When the vote-trading starts at precincts, electability becomes the watchword and southern pols get a Democratic edge.

Let’s not forget that some cynical liberal columnists have declared the surest way for the Dems to lose the White House three times straight is to go with a chick or a black guy.

But Thursday showed things are definitely changing in Iowa (which no one has noticed has become more urban and less white). For Obama to be the newly anointed national frontrunner does send a powerful message around the globe about race – be it conscious or unconscious.

And it sets up the tantalizing possibility of a real race in November with folks we’re not yet irritated by.

I’ll leave you with one increasingly likely scenario: Obama vs. John McCain, the now odds-on favorite in New Hampshire and Michigan. This could be the first substantive campaign in decades between two independent-minded candidates, a respectful clash of generations, plans and worldviews.

My money’s on the wily POW who survived the Hanoi Hilton, but like any political analyst, I’m paid to be wrong.

Either way, I’d sure like the chance to find out.